By Merle Liivand, Guest Contributor, Estonian swimmer
Every swimmer we meet in our sport has a journey. Some started swimming because their family has been involved or their parents thought it was good for their kid. I have met so many people who have been involved with water somehow– water polo, open water, triathlon, synchronized swimming, aqua fitness, swimming; you name it! But the love for water and journey through the water world is not always easy.
Swimming has been part of my life for the last 13 years. I remember my first practice like it was yesterday. My family doctor recommended I start swimming because I had weak lungs. I had been interested in swimming for a long time but never had the courage to start.
My brother was born with hip dysplasia and the doctors sent him right away to water therapy. There was a chance that he would never learn how to walk. Thanks to the water therapy my brother started to run before he could walk, so to speak, and now he’s totally fine and a healthy boy! I grew up watching my brother (6 years younger than me) blossom in the sport.
Soon after I started with swimming and learning about water safety, I was already taking part in youth competitions. A year after I started, I won a bronze medal at Estonian Youth Nationals. I developed my breaststroke skills quickly and my coach always laughed, saying I was a “fast froggie.” It’s always great when you work hard and win medals, but there were many times where I had to face issues from another parents like – Was she really born in 1991?! There were meets where I was ahead by 25 meters and expectations were high. But I wasn’t that talented in the other strokes. I was struggling with IM sets in practice and didn’t enjoy non-breaststroke races as much in competition.
In June of 2003, I was ready to take part of my first Estonian Nationals. I was motivated and practice in-season went well. I was on taper and two days before the Nationals something happened.
At the end of one practice, my coaches, Ain and Heidi Kaasik, had us do 25s from the blocks. As soon Coach gave me the signal, I dived in to see there was another swimmer under me doing pullout. I was shocked and didn’t want to hit the swimmer, so I turned myself and aimed straight down. I hit my head on the bottom of the pool. The only thing that I remembered was that I had to swim my 25 meters for time. I finished and my time was 16.78. I didn’t understand what had happened. I swam to the other side, took off my white cap (which wasn’t so white anymore) and sat at the side of the pool.
Swimmers freaked out and called over the lifeguard after seeing that my head was bleeding. I was rushed to the hospital. The result was 14 stitches and luckily not a broken neck. After the accident and enduring a lot of pain, more than ever I wanted to compete; I wanted to swim. Two days after that accident I was racing with my stitched head and won four gold medals with an older age group. I couldn’t turn my head at all. Pain killers helped me to go through the race, but I couldn’t stand up during the medal ceremony. My mum was there supporting me as much as possible.
Trail of Trials
Soon after, my chiropractor and doctor thought things looked to be going well and said I was more than fine to hit hard practices again. There were days when I took pain medications and was fine. I had many obstacles to face due to my health and problems with gluten, food allergies, anemia and asthma. I had ups and downs in swimming, but I kept going until I really grew to hate the constant troubles I was dealt. One day I would be at the hospital due to food allergies and the next day I’d be at swim meet.
I felt that sport was not made for me. I felt I was not strong enough to handle any activity anymore.
Honestly, I hated swimming so badly that I didn’t want to hear any more about it. I was giving up. I was letting obstacles and pain take over my heart. But then one day, my mum, Jaana Liivand, asked me to look inside myself and stop denying the fact that I loved swimming! That was the day I realized what my heart wanted. I just wanted to swim; to have fun with it by doing it the smart (and fast) way!
My mum taught me that sometimes it is not about how we feel, it’s about how we target! That day was my wake up call. I learned that obstacles were there for me to figure out how to thrive on my life journey. I decided that, not only am I going to turn around my uncomfortable feeling towards the water, I am going to relearn what swimming is about.
I redefined success for myself and grew passionate about swimming again. I decided to give back to people what swimming has given to me. I opened with my swim gear and skincare company called Swimera with my mum (back home in Estonia, Europe) and stepped into a lot of charity work. Today we have organized five international swim meets. Next summer, I am a board member helping to organize the Nordic Open Water Championships. I have helped EU Swim meet and this year I had privilege to help athletes come to compete in the U.S.
I am passionate about baby swimming, competitive swimming, masters swimming, aqua therapy-– all of the happenings of the water world. Through my brother’s swim journey, I learned that water has miraculous power. Every human life spends its first nine months in water! And I want to be there for athletes and coach who are just beginning their water journey. Moments when I can make difference in somebody’s life or in their family’s are the moments that get me out of bed every morning (starting at 4:30 a.m.!).
I truly believe that everyone of every age can swim and have fun with it. I have so many exciting projects going on. And I am one of those lucky ones who is still doing the sport. Life truly is amazing, no matter what the obstacles may be!
People know me as a person who tries to see both sides of every medal. I am always excited to figure out the situation, even when life hits me in the face. I think that strength comes mostly from my dear mum who has taught me that even when you are stuck in the mud, you have chance to stand up, keep going and get your heart back in the game! Even in life’s scariest moments.
An Injury Reawakened
One beautiful day in 2015, I woke up with numb fingers. First I thought that it is because I was in New York City, and was feeling effects of the cold. But this numb feeling didn’t go away. My fingers actually were in pain and were not feeling any water. After two weeks, the normal feeling came back and everything seemed fine again…until summer came.
I was training hard and traveling a lot. One day after practice I could not feel my wrist anymore. I had been having pains in my lower back and neck as well, so I went to see a sports doctor. The diagnosis was that my neck was inflamed on one side and I was feeling the nerve pinches in my hand. My old injury flaring up was giving me so much pain that we had to consider surgery.
I heard many negative outlooks on my neck and fingers; even the possibility that I might begin loosing feeling to my arm muscles. But I knew that this was not going to be my story and decided to find another solution to my situation. I found a great doctor who helped create exercises specialized for me. I also started taking yoga, pilates, and ballet classes every week.
But the best part of the diagnosis from my doctor was that I must be married to swimming and the water for the rest of my life. Just 10 minutes in the water can help me be pain-free. I learned quickly that facing your current reality actually creates your new reality; making you better and stronger than ever!
Four months into daily therapy, I ran my first half marathon. A week after that, I participated in a Miami triathlon. Four days after that, I was racing at Florida Winter Championships, going best times. I was also able to help to put together Swimera goods for the competition what was held in Estonia. After a tough summer of medical results, I was surprised by my comeback.
I am one fortunate young woman who is excited to live and breathe in the swimming universe. But often as there were signs to give up this amazing world, there were people without whom I would not be standing here with my visions and my passion.
I owe many thanks to my lovely and strong mum, and my family and friends who have never left my heart! I want to thank my biggest supporters– Finis Swimming and Mr. John Mix! Thank You, GoSwim.tv– Glenn and Rachel Mills for believing in me. Thank you, Karen Allard and SBR Sports for being there and introducing me to triathlon and the open water world! Most of all, I want thank my therapists and coaches who have continually believed in me and my passion! And I also want to thank the coaches and people who haven’t believed to me. I truly value my life’s down moments as much as I value my ups. I think I have so much more to do here for athletes and coaches. I hope no one walks away from swimming and the water!